Museum of Modern Art, New York
25 February – 14 May 2007.
Art Institute of Chicago
29 June – 23 September 2007.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
27 October 2007 – 27 January 2008
Contemporary photographers do not reflect the world around them, as many of their predecessors did. They refashion it. They manipulate it. Although not as famous as Leibowits, Mapplethorpe, Sherman or even Ritts, the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall has much in common with them. As his recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York demonstrated, he makes the banal glamorous. He does not seek the conventionally beautiful. At first glance, the vast ten-room show of forty-one enormous color transparencies mounted in light boxes was stunning. The clarity and translucence of these backlit cibachromes produce dazzling jewel-like detail. Ah, such lush greens and blues, such vivid oranges and rich reds. The large scale of the works seems to add aesthetic weight to even his least impressive subjects. But Wall’s imagery flattens and tends to get tiresome after viewing such an abundance of them.
Trained as an art historian, Wall now considers himself an artist of modern life. His views of dull industrial Vancouver, British Columbia, the landscape and its people, are too self-consciously artless. The meticulously and ridiculously posed trailer trash in "Shadows and Tattoos" provides a contemporary riff on Manet and Seurat. Photographs of common people doing laundry or crossing an overpass suggest Soviet Social Realism at its most banal. Wall explores surrealism, too, in the incongruously abundant sea life living in "The Flooded Grave." Perhaps the outstanding work in the show is "A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)" with its witty homage to the famous Japanese color woodcut. How did Wall get the hat to soar like that or those papers to scatter to the wind at just the right second? Apparently, he owes much to the magic of digital manipulation.
Every one of Wall's compositions is as studied as a fashion shoot. Wall had to wait for the precise moment for that spray of milk to fly in "Milk." He never wastes a shot. Unfortunately, his craft often appears less impressive than all the labor that goes into it. Wall is a master of artistic disorder and artful annihilation. Every small detail is so carefully placed in the seemingly hurricane-dismantled interior of "The Destroyed Room." There is no spontaneity, no emotion, no room for mistakes. These works are all about the photographer’s control. They are so cool that they feign indifference on the artist’s part despite all the effort they require. Even the deceptively ordinary "A View from a Night Club" looks like a spread from Vogue or Vanity Fair. It took Wall days to stage its "cast." He leaves nothing to chance.
Wall once dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, so it is not surprising that he often draws on film stills and industrial photography of the 1940s and 1950s for ideas. He distinguishes between his staged "cinematographic" pictures and more immediate "documentary" work. Many of Wall’s photographs are pure narrative and the viewer is expected to fill in the blanks, as in "Fieldwork" and "The Storyteller." Particularly disturbing is the cold, calculated composition of a well-groomed woman performing before some stiff, uncomfortably clothed and thoroughly bored children in "A Ventriloquist at a birthday party in Oct, 1947." Another picture of sluggish suburbia seems nothing out of the ordinary until one spots a couple battling the cops in "The Eviction." This image is as chilly and stagy and, yes, corny as a B movie still. The photographer has dabbled in social satire, as in "Mimic", by having a white man make an obscene racist gesture with his eye as an Asian walks by. Wall’s take on the gruesome aftermath of an Afghan massacre of a Red Army patrol in "Dead Troops Talk" should have been devastating, but despite all the stage blood and guts thrown about, his models’ shameless mugging takes all the bite of the satire and reduces it to cynical camp. Sometimes, Wall actually refers to specific literary sources, as in his pretty study of an elegantly dressed lady from Yukio Mishima’s "After Spring Snow" and the elaborately constructed interior of hundreds of light bulbs dangling from the ceiling inspired by Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
Occasionally, Wall reaches for the sublime when he dares to throw subject matter aside to study merely texture and color in diagonal compositions of a kitchen sink or a staining bench. The austere "Poppies in a Garden" and "Sunken Area" are so refreshingly free of the visual tricks of his other work that they seem to have been created by another artist. And yet, as with most of Wall’s more staged compositions in this retrospective, there is much less here than meets the eye.
Michael Patrick Hearn
The National Museum of the American Indian
Almost 500 years after the "discovery" of America, at last the original inhabitants are being recognized with a new edifice on the Mall of the United States capital. On September 21, 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian opened to the public, the building designed by Douglas Cardinal, a Canadian Native American architect, and its contents reviewed by natives from all the Americas.
Ettore Sottsass: Architect & Designer – book review
Perhaps the most surprising statement in this book (at least for a European) is that Ettore Sottsass is still virtually unknown in the USA. This despite the shock and horror of 'Memphis' (and the film parodying its style, 'Ruthless People', starring Danny De Vito and Bette Midler), the work of ex-Memphis designer Peter Shire in California, and the fact that Sottsass himself designed the GE115 computer, which was made jointly by Olivetti, Bull in France and General Electric in America in 1967.
Book review: Archaeology of an Urban Desert
Jon Naar is a British photographer who has been based in New York. In 1974 he joined up with the late Norman Mailer to produce The Faith of Graffiti (1974), which contained around forty of his photographs. This combined survey was immediately successful, and is now a rare collectors' item. At that time, Naar's pictures captured brilliantly the spirit of the times, from inside the closely woven infrastructure of New York City, opening the very arteries and veins of the urban complex.
The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power 1973
This excellent catalogue, a survey of leading women artists from the late 20th century that examines the crucial feminist contribution to the deconstructivist movement, accompanies the exhibition that started at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York
Towers: from Manhattan to Moscow
Renzo Piano's New York Times Building, situated on 8th Avenue, Manhattan, was opened this month to considerable approval from New Yorkers, architects, critics and particularly the press, who will work within Piano's superb spaces. The tower is 52 storeys high. Being in the centre of Manhattan, the architect and clients have wisely sought to create, in this context, a classic variant of the traditional skyscraper format for which the city is so famous.